Thursday, July 23, 2009

Michael A. Smith - The Earth is Flat

The earth is flat. But it's not. It rolls over the horizon, its spherical curvature habitually unperceived in our daily round. Historically, photography has focused on a rectangular image whose dimensions were usually no greater than 1/2, which is to say horizontal or vertical organizations of subject-matter were organized around the human field of vision as we typically experience it. Our peripheral vision is mostly for peripheral awareness, whilst our mental concentration (or focal perception) is roughly confined within the 30-50 degree field ahead of us. Normally sighted individuals may perceive visual data up to 170 degrees across the field of vision, but most of this data is "ignored" by the brain.  

On those occasions when we are made aware of the potential extent of our impressive peripheral vision--for instance, when we're raised above the ground or when we look up into the sky--we are reminded at the same time of the breadth of our apprehension of the environment, of the vast array of data which is thus made available for our discernment.

There is a long history of wide-angle photography. Variations in the shape and dimension of the picture plane were explored over one hundred years ago. Throughout its history, some photographers have made images out of "wide" or "banquet" formats. We've all seen the classic "group" portraits of gatherings of people at long tables, on grandstands, "team" photos, "class" photographs, and the like. Pioneer photographers like Art Sinsabaugh (1924-1983) explored "flat" horizontal landscape photography using large wide-angle format (12x20). Sinsabaugh's quotidian Midwestern landscapes ironically emphasized the "flatness" of subject-matter while at the same time celebrating it through the power of his materials.  

Flatness, or horizontal design principles were explored by Frank Lloyd Wright during his "Prairie Style" design periods. It's no surprise that Wright, a Midwesterner by birth and inspiration (Wisconsin, Chicago), was moved to create architectural designs that exploited the undulations and straight lines implied by the flat, subtly inflected Middle Western landscape.

Over the last 30 years, Michael A. Smith, of Pennsylvania, has assiduously devoted himself to expressing visual composition through his 8x20 inch view camera. I first met Michael about 20 years ago, about the time he'd first met up with Paula Chamlee, soon to be his wife and perpetual camera companion (and accomplished photographer in her own right). Michael had already by that time published a landmark collection of images in a two volume monograph of his work (Landscapes 1975-1979). In the years since then, he and Paula have traveled around the world, photographing breathtaking landscapes, and have embarked upon an ambitious publishing venture under the Lodima Press imprimatur, including the collected Portfolios of Brett Weston (in progress)

In 1999-2000, Smith and Chamlee traveled to Italy, shipping their "camera car" all the way to Europe. The result: A 2-volume set, TUSCANY, Wandering the Back Roads [Lodima Press, 2004]. 

Most popular landscape photography emphasizes dramatic juxtapositions, and hair-raising vantages. Truncated spacial relationships, high contrast arrangements, unreal colors, etc. Serious "art" landscape photography, as well, has largely been preoccupied with eye-catching images, or eccentrically conceived subject-matter. Smith, on the other hand, has been interested in high-resolution "straight" image-making. With the large negatives he uses, contact printing is mostly what you work with--after all, what's the point of enlarging a photographic contact print that's already almost two feet wide?! The great advantage of contact printing (directly from the negative sandwiched with the printing paper), is the extraordinary detail afforded by the lenses. The quality of the detail, alone, is often fascinating enough in its own right, to justify the use of such large, unwieldy, negatives. 

What struck me about Smith's images, from the start, was their apparent lack of initial formal excitement. Obviously, he wasn't interested in "oohing" and "ahhing" the viewer with his over-the-top angles or strained intensities. Smith comes down from a tradition that began with Weston and Adams and Strand, deploying a meditative, quiet vision that has absorbed the meaning of photography as an art, that acknowledges the range of expressive qualities possible to light-sensitive image-making, but prefers to revel in the textures and subtle shadings of straight composition, without blurring, in full light, from panoramic vantages. 

Smith's vision is heroic, seeing in the curved, modulating waves of land, a formal grace and power; in the grainy densities of rock, stucco, wood and earth, an almost spiritual absorption; in the varying textures of fields of grass, of the scrubby, bushy, twiggy stuff of trees, shrubs and vines, metaphysical signatures through the albedo of the sun's wide spectrum, its panoply of arrayed reportage.

Smith has been loyal to his vision, unwilling or unable to compromise it in favor of a more "attractive" style. Smith's new book is Ocean Variations [2009]. I'm looking forward to it.                       


Kirby Olson said...

I read in a book called The Canon, about the latest in various science departments, that the earth's surface is smoother than a bowling ball if they were both the same size.

I like your out-of-the-way interests.

Almost every other blog today is going to be about Henry Louis Gates yelling at the police officer about his mama.

It's a refreshing break to have someone so exclusively interested in the aesthetic, without even much about politics. It's really nice.

Ed Baker said...

just dawned on me
that what is The Compass Rose ain't no "rose" a-tall:

tis an ancient device to tell/show sailors which a-way the wind blowx!